A four-quadrant approach to writing: making it both fun and deep.
After all my previous musing about finding audiences and how to appeal to them, I decided I'd start a series of posts where I look at the whole technology, so to speak, of finding and keeping an audience with a given work.
Every piece of work finds and keeps a different readership. It's not always possible to know, in advance, what kind of audience you get — although you can make educated guesses based on what the readership is for previous work in a similar vein. This is where the concept of the target market (I know, yecch) comes from, for good or bad, and I suspect I'm going to be invoking it at least as much as I end up deconstructing it and tunneling under it during these discussions.
What SF&F and literary fiction have to teach each other -- and what to do about them talking past each other, or learning the wrong lessons. A first attempt at stating the problem.
For perspective, here's a roundup of all my previous "Human Wave" commentary posts.
And the original article that started it all. Read that first if you're wondering what this is about.
"Your work should speak for itself."
You shall not spend your life explaining why your not-boring is better than your fellow writers not-boring. Instead you will shut up and write.
In my words: "Your work should speak for itself."
This connects with something I have touched on throughout this series: the justifications writers cough up for why their work is the way it is.
One of the exercises that people do in a writing workshop is to have your work read by someone else to the class, and then to have everyone else in the class give spot reactions to it. The author sits with his mouth shut. He can take notes, but he can't respond out loud. This is a writ-small version of what happens in the real world: the author typically isn't there to respond on the spot to any bewilderment or dismay felt by the reader, and so the work has to stand as much as possible on its own two feet.
"You will not be boring. Or at least you’ll do your best not to be boring." What, then, does it mean to be boring?
You will not be boring. Or at least you’ll do your best not to be boring.
By the laws of the aesthete, "boring" is the most damning indictment possible for any work of art. The problem is, "boring" is a subjective term for which you will never get a consistent set of examples.
Here is a list of things people I know have called boring: Blade Runner, Citizen Kane, The Brothers Karamazov, Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, Asimov's Foundation series, The Tale of Genji, Star Wars, 2001, all of Shakespeare, the first four Black Sabbath albums, Casablanca, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and all three Transformers films. The list goes on. A purely inclusive list of boring things, based solely on someone's insistence, would end up encompassing most every work of art or culture.
What makes something boring, then, has little to do with the thing itself, and stems almost entirely from peoples' expectations.
"Be consistent with your own aims." If your world falls apart, it had better be for a good reason.
You are allowed to write scientific speculation that counters “currently established fact” – just give us a reason why that makes sense in your universe. (For some universes it can be highly whimsical, for others you’ll need serious handwavium.)
Read as: "Be consistent with your own aims."
Philip K. Dick, god bless his crazy soul, once gave a lecture with the title "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later." In typical Dick fashion, it meanders a bit and takes a rather major detour into the very murky waters of his Exegesis, from which few (Dick included) return intact. But he makes a point I rather like:
I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.
In other words, when things fall apart in a Dick novel, it's not because he isn't paying attention. It's because he's using that as a way to tell the story he really wants to tell. The first few times I ran into this, it did feel much like he was improvising his way into (and out of) situations that didn't seem to have any clear throughline. His lesser books do have that flavor about them, but his best ones follow through on their promise. They are consistent in the way they explore being inconsistent. But not everyone is Philip K. Dick, nor should they be, and so most of the time a story has to be built to be consistent on its own terms or it simply doesn't work.
With SF&F, it isn't too difficult to be internally consistent even at the expense of established fact. It takes an attention to detail, but it also takes the courage of one's convictions — the nerve to believe that your idea, once extended to encompass the whole of the story's universe, will be enough to carry the reader all the way through to the end. It takes, for lack of a better word, chutzpah.
The crazier the conceit, the more chutzpah you need to see it through. Sometimes the only way to do this is to play it all with a straight face, as Christopher Priest did in Inverted World (which, in a good example of "popular" and "literary" fiction shaking hands, has since been reissued by none other than the New York Review of Books). By doing that, he took what might have been an unsupportable concept and not only made it supportable but turned it into a larger allegory for human progress as a one-way street.
Sometimes you just need to be as crazy as the material demands, as Brian Aldiss did with Eighty-Minute Hour. There, he made no excuses for what was happening, but sustained it all by being massively entertaining. The consistency was in the tone and the approach, which was uniformly comic and tongue-in-cheek.
Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus — a splendid book which doesn't get nearly enough press, by the way — walks somewhere between the two. There is one major element which requires suspension of disbelief, and then a whole slew of other ones — but by the end of the story, the whole thing has become a treatise on the nature of suspending one's disbelief and building trust with an audience, both the ones in the book and the ones outside it flipping the pages. I have my own problems with the story being a little too overstuffed and headless for its own good, but they stand entirely apart from how entertaining and imaginative it is — and how the whole thing also works as a sly jab at the way men project their fantasies about women onto the real things, often to the detriment of both.
Consistency, then, isn't just a matter of laying down conceptual rules. It's also a matter of tone and approach, and those are things which readers respond at least as strongly to, if not more so, than the what-if that fuels the story.
"Write to be read." So what makes some writers willfully defy such a convention?
You will write in language that can be understood. You will have an idea of what your story is about, or at least of its beginning, middle and end. And so will your reader, once he reads it.
Translation: "Write to be read."
In the earlier posts in this series I've mused about the way some writers seem motivated more by the urge to break rules, garner infamy or push boundaries than they are to communicate something worth hearing.
Here's the irony: After studying such writers and their work for some time, I've come to a strange conclusion: They do feel they're communicating something — and what they're communicating is the breaking of rules, the pushing of boundaries (and yes, even the garnering of infamy for doing all those things).
They see themselves as heirs to an artistic tradition that has encompassed more than just literature, but the other arts as well — everything from Rothko's color fields to Stockhausen's amelodic and theoretical music to you-name-it. That tradition has long been about form, not content. It has a rarefied, intellectual appeal that by itself can be quite exhilarating. I do not dismiss that exhilaration out of hand; I myself have experienced it in many forms.
The problem is that such exhilaration has come to be seen as superior to other experiences that can be gleaned from art. Morally superior, even: that somehow the ambitions inherent in Infinite Jest are superior to the ambitions in the most recent Vampire Hunter D novel. It's just plain better to be David Foster Wallace than it is to be Hideyuki Kikuchi. Full stop.
I have thought about this long and hard, and I cannot conclude that it is any less one-sided than the exact opposite impulse: that Wallace's writing is bloated pretense and Kikuchi is the "superior" author for being "just entertainment". One might as well complain that a taxi make for a lousy transatlantic trip. The two authors, their respective works, and the respective fields they work in are parallel territories. One does not eclipse the other, for the simple reason that neither of them are trying to do remotely the same thing.
I understand why people want to put such things into hierarchies. It makes life easier to know where you stand. Part of it is voiced in the grumbling I hear from writers and readers of more highbrow work. They hate the fact that the appeal of their work remains limited to a self-selecting minority; they resent how most people would rather "read dumb" than take a challenge; they despise the "dumbing-down" of fiction; and so on. Faced with all that, who wouldn't want to right such wrongs by constructing a hierarchy and placing yourself (or at least the company you keep) at the teetering top?
Except that these issues are all false dichotomies. The audience for a David Foster Wallace work is in no way endangered by the people who read Kikuchi (or, for that matter, John Grisham). If more people pick Grisham because he gives them what is comfortable, familiar and workable — a fast-moving story, a few issues to toy with — and eschew Wallace because of his studied impenetrability, no moral imperative is produced. Wallace is not the better writer for his obscurantism any more than Grisham is the better writer for his accessibility.
Any writer writes to be read, and they do so out of at least some consciousness of who is going to be reading them, thanks to the circumstances of their moment in time. It is possible for most any work, however deliberately esoteric, to find an audience, and it's not a question of a bigger audience being the better deal than a smaller one. It's a question of why that audience, big or small, latches onto your work. It's a question of recognizing that why and being honest about it, and that is as subjective for an author as it is for his audience, potential or actual.
Here is what I mean. I have read much of both Wallace and Kikuchi. I have my problems with each one, but that does not mean I can pick the one I have fewer problems with and consider that man the "better" writer. I would not give Kikuchi to a fan of Thomas Pynchon, just as I would not give Wallace to a fan of Jim Butcher. I do not automatically feel fans of Kikuchi are "better served" by being exposed to Wallace, or vice versa for that matter. If I consider either one a better writer, it's always going to be in the context of their audience, their most immediate and comparable cohorts, and their own work.
The better metaphor for where to place those authors is in a palette, not a hierarchy, and every time we try to make ourselves believe a definitive hierarchy exists we do damage to both the high- and low-brow readers.
It helps, certainly, to read broadly. It helps to be a writer who seeks to speak to a wide and thoughtful audience. It does not help to do so out of a misguided sense of why. If one reads broadly, it should be as a reflection of one's existing breadth and curiosity, not as a way to forcibly cultivate such things. You cannot make a better reader out of someone by force-feeding them a book, any book. You can only do so by finding the works that connect to them, however peripherally, as they are now. The breadth has to come first, and that's not something that can be faked. I would rather see an honestly limited reader than a dishonestly broad one, because at least then I know who is going to be more genuinely receptive of what. I resent false pretenses more than I do artistic limitations.
I doubt any author sits down and says "I will write to be misunderstood." Even the most brutally experimental of writing is conceived out of a sense that it communicates something, even if it isn't something that is directly on the page. If they are uncomfortable with being "obvious", or "mainstream", or any of the other formulas that are trotted out by writers as an end-run around the never-less-than-difficult business of telling a good story well, then I have to wonder if communication is even their real motive.
And yet, I understand completely what it is to want to say something in a way that has never been said before. It is a sublime temptation, to go up against all the words that have been spoken before and find a way to say something new. It's a shot at immortality. Who doesn't want to be thought of as an innovator, a groundbreaker? No writer I've known who had more than two kernels of ambition to rub together, that's for sure.
But here's the thing: if you're determined to break new ground, it's almost always because you feel what you have to say cannot be said any other way except by breaking new ground. You have to assume the peculiar gains you are driving towards cannot be had at all without steering off-road. This is itself another temptation that I don't think authors wrestle with as seriously as they ought to. They put more stock in their ambition, in their visions of a literature not yet written, than they do in what already exists to be drawn on. he more ambitious the author, the less faith they seem to put into writing as it is conventionally practiced.
Such a thing seems to be a function of their emotional investment in their ambitions: What I have in mind is so grand that language itself can barely contain it. Therefore, language, bend to me! And so comes Ulysses, or JR — but sometimes also Mrs. Dalloway or Maldoror. (I feel the latter works are more successful than the former.) No guarantees, for the price of calling anything an "experiment" is that the experiment sometimes must be seen as a failure. It's the price of placing a great idea, unseen and unknown to anyone but the creator himself, over the lumpen but earthy and approachable reality of an actual finished product.
I once said to someone else that one of my previous books was 90% of what I had wanted it to be, while another one was only 60%. I realized later on this was foolish: the book is 100% of whatever the reader experiences and nothing else, and even their own speculations about what it could be have nothing to do with my own. The only thing that matters is what makes it to the page, and why. My own comments about same only matter to me, or someone writing my biography, and nobody else.
In a way, I'm not surprised that authors tie themselves up in knots about such things. They've been taught to do so, schooled scrupulously in it. They've had it hammered into them a dozen different ways that the only alternative is hackdom, commercialism, the mediocrity of the mass market, that it's better to be a noble failure and wither on the vine with 500 barely-circulated copies than it is to break wide with something that panders.
Well, it's a lie. A well-meaning lie, a beautifully-motivated lie, but a lie nonetheless, because this dichotomy only exists — to coin a phrase — on paper. Every book that is written which shows how the sublime and the straightforward can be merged, sometimes effortlessly, is proof to the contrary. If in the end the definitive proof consists of nothing but individual books here and there, if not whole genres or approaches, that will still be proof enough. There is no point in not being read if it costs you all that you had to say anyway.
"Don't leave the reader feeling cheated," and how it's possible to do that as both an SF&F writer and a "straight" fiction writer.
Unless absolutely necessary you will have a positive feeling to your story. By this we don’t mean it will have a happy ending or that we expect pollyanish sentiments out of you. Your novel and setting can be as dystopic as you want it. In fact, your character can die at the end. Just make sure he goes down fighting and dies for something, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated.
If I had to condense all of my expectations about a book, any book, into a single sentiment, it would be this: I want to come out of that book knowing something, however minor, that I didn't know going in.
I'm not talking about technical knowledge, although that can be interesting. I'm currently reading Fuminori Nakamura's The Thief, which seems to be exploring some of the same territory as Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. Both stories give you a great deal of detail about the moment-to-moment activities of a man engaged in petty crime, but they don't make the mistake of confusing the technical detail of his work with a story about him. There is something both stories have above and beyond that, about human nature — and in my purview, human nature is really the only subject worth writing about for a human audience.
The best way to not cheat an audience, then, is to write something insightful about human behavior. The problem is that many authors either ignore this entirely (because they're writing SF, dammit) or supply us with human behavior that is so hopelessly entrenched in the mundane that there barely seems a reason to write a book in the first place.
(Warning: Digressions ahead.)